SJF • Proper 11c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians includes one of the more difficult passages in Scripture. Paul declares that he himself is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” It sounds as if Paul is saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient — as if his death on the cross was somehow not a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice of himself once offered, for us and for our salvation. Could it possibly be that Paul, the great defender of salvation through Christ alone, the great champion of the saving cross of Christ, could be suggesting that Christ’s sufferings were themselves “lacking”?
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In several of my sermons over the years I have used the image of a gift: a birthday or Christmas or some other present. Usually such gifts are beautifully wrapped. Often they come with a card. But as I have asked once before, would any of you receive such a present, such a beautifully wrapped gift, but leave it wrapped and unopened? If you did so, you might say that you have the gift even if you haven’t opened the package and don’t even know what the gift is. But in truth you don’t really have the gift until both of these things are accomplished: until that wrapping comes off, the box is opened, and you see what the gift is. Unless you are one of those who believe you can “have your cake and eat it too” — I think you will agree that there is more to really having a gift than just holding it in your hands.
Or think of it this way: there were once two good friends, Jim and Tom, who were always engaging in little friendly wagers with each other. Jim normally won the bets, so often so that on one occasion when Tom bet Jim ten dollars on whose memory of a baseball score was right, and won — Tom proudly said he would frame the ten dollar bill and never spend it. Whereupon Jim said, “In that case, can I write you a check?”
We all know that an uncashed check is something like an unopened gift. You may wave the check in the air and say that you’ve got the $10; but until you cash that check, or deposit it in your own account and wait for it to clear, that $10 is still really resting in someone else’s account — and if you never cash he check or deposit it, that’s where it will stay, in someone else’s bank. A check isn’t money, but a promise of money. And if there is nothing to back up that promise, it is worthless. It’s no good saying, “My account can’t be overdrawn; I still have checks left!” If you don’t have money in the bank, in your account, any check you write will be just a piece of paper, with nothing to back it up. For a check really to be of any value you need to have something on deposit in your account.
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The crucial word in all of this is that simple little two-letter word in. What Paul is saying is that the package has been presented and is being unwrapped — the mystery that had been hidden throughout the ages and generations — the contents of the package, what’s in it — is in the process of being revealed — but not only in the death of Christ on the cross, but also in the flesh of believers, his flesh, Paul’s that is, and the flesh of the people of Colossae, Corinth, Ephesus and wherever the church has spread the Gospel. And what that mystery is — the contents of the package, — is the mystery of the Church itself, the body of Christ: the whole company of all the faithful who are in Christ as Christ is in them. As Paul says, the mystery of God is “Christ in you.”
Thus, when the church suffers, Christ suffers. When the church suffers, Christ’s sufferings are added to. And this isn’t just a crazy idea that Paul came up with on his own. He learned it from personal experience from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. For when Paul, or as he was known in those days, Saul, was himself busily persecuting the church, rounding up Christians, members of the Body of Christ, and sending them off to prison or punishment or torture or death — when the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus what did he say? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Persecute me!” That’s what Jesus said to Saul the persecutor of the church. Jesus was saying to Saul, “When you persecute and hurt the church, you persecute and hurt me.” For the church is the body of Christ, it is his body, that Paul, or Saul, was persecuting. This was a hard lesson for Saul to learn, but learn it he did: The suffering of the church is the suffering of Christ himself.
Now, there is nothing new in this — after all, Jesus had said, in his preaching on the end days, in that powerful passage from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you have done to the least of these who believe in me you have done it to me.” Whenever and wherever the church is persecuted, perhaps most especially when one part of the church persecutes another — member against member, one part of the body against another part of the body — whenever the church suffers, Christ suffers, for the church is his body and each of us are individually members of it. As Paul also reminds us, when one member suffers all suffer — we are truly all in this together, and how we treat each other is how we treat Jesus — for he is in us as we are in him.
Which is why the sufferings of Christ are not yet complete. The package has not been completely unwrapped — the check has been deposited but it has not yet cleared. Until the last great day when all is swallowed up in that final victory, suffering continues: our suffering for and with each other, our suffering due to our own failings and sins and the sins of the world, and the suffering that we inflict on others in our ignorance and imperfection: all of this will continue to contribute to the suffering of Christ in his body the church. And all of this suffering is taken up by Christ not as a surplus added to what took place on Calvary, but rather as a working out in us of what was accomplished once for all by him — the full revelation of his gift to all of us, which is the gift of the cross that was presented for all the world on that spring afternoon during Passover-time in Jerusalem of old — but whose impact is felt in each of us as we take up our own cross day by day. This is nothing less than the full negotiation of that promissory note — the fulfillment of salvation — a check that will not clear for good and all until the last great day. It continues as long as this earthly life shall last — for there are many who yet will be saved who have not yet even been born!
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As each of us suffers, our sufferings are taken up by Christ. Paul suffers with Christ “in his flesh” — as he also said to the Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ living in me; and the life I live in the flesh is the life of faith in the son of God.” As each of us, too, takes up our cross day by day, we participate in the sufferings of Christ.
For Christ’s work is finished but not ended — there are still many in the world who hold him in contempt, or who are ignorant of his good will and purpose for them. And as I said before, there are many yet who will come to believe who have not even been born. The mystery of the kingdom of God is in some ways like those gift boxes that you open only to find another smaller box inside, and then another inside that, and then another. We will only come to the end, an end to all suffering — both Christ’s and our own — when he comes in power and great glory to rule the world. And what a day that will be! And so we pray, Come Lord Jesus, come. +